Dani Shapiro is the author of four acclaimed novels, Playing with Fire, Fugitive Blue, and Picturing the Wreck, and Family History, and the bestselling memoir Slow Motion. She teaches in the graduate writing program at The New School, and has written for The New Yorker, Granta, Elle, and Ploughshares, among other magazines. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
Author biography courtesy of Random House.
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In out interview, Shapiro shared some interesting anecdotes about her life with us:
"One of the stranger things about me is that I was raised as an Orthodox Jew. I went to a yeshiva until I was thirteen years old, and spoke fluent Hebrew. I no longer can speak Hebrew, though I suppose it would come back if I immersed myself in it."
"I used to act in television commercials when I was a kid and a young adult."
"I've never had a ‘real job'. Well, that's not entirely true. I spent a week as an executive assistant at an advertising agency after I graduated from college -- it's the thing that propelled me back into graduate school, to get my M.F.A. And also, I sold cubic zirconia (fake diamonds) over the phone when I was in high school. Phone sales. Talk about rejection!"
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What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
When I was in graduate school, I took a course in 19th Century literature that changed my life as a writer. I had a gifted professor who taught me to read very differently than I had before. Until then, I had read novels as a reader, with a somewhat academic bent. But in this course, the professor (whose name was Ilja Wachs, and to whom I eventually dedicated my second novel) taught us to read as writers. It was as if a light bulb had gone off in my head. For the first time, I began to understand that metaphor, similie, foreshadowing and such were part of the creative process -- that the writer wasn't necessarily maneuvering and making decisions as much as following unconscious motivations. The book I was reading at the time the light bulb went off was Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. I read it three or four times, and it also led me to read about 19th Century French history in order to understand the political and social factors that might have been influencing Flaubert -- since writers cannot help but be affected by the times in which they live.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
What a hard question. This list would probably be somewhat different on any given day. I'll begin with older, classic books and make my way toward the contemporary ones:
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot -- I read this in the same 19th Century literature class. It deals with ethnicity, with Jewishness, in a way that was highly unusual and risky for a female, English writer.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- I could really list any novel by Woolf. Reading her prose is like looking through calm, clear water. The language is so perfect. It does what great writing should: it illuminates, but it never gets in the way.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- Gorgeous, poetic, verging-on-mad prose. An orgy of prose, really. I read it for the first time at an artist's colony where I was visiting while writing my first novel, and I remember feeling sad, almost nostalgic while reading it because I'd never be able to read it for the first time ever again.
A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley -- When it was published, it was billed as a "fictional memoir". I've taught it for years in a course called "The Literature of Autobiography". It's a fascinating hybrid which raises interesting questions about truth and fact and fiction. What is the difference between autobiographical fiction and memoir? A Fan's Notes is provocative, moving, painful and always, beautifully written. It was Exley's great triumph, and that triumph is the redemption within the book itself.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick -- This long out-of-print book is one of the great coming-of-age stories set in New York, by one of our finest writers. It still feels very modern to me, and is the most classic and powerful of the whole single-girl-in-New-York genre.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion -- I love everything Didion has ever written. She's an original. I'm amazed by the way she has this razor-sharp intelligence which doesn't interfere with -- in fact enhances -- the beauty of her prose. I could read a sentence from her work, taken completely out of context, and know it was hers.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates -- The great suburban novel. Yates is uncompromising, unblinking about his characters, and yet he maintains at all times complete sympathy for them. A heart-breaking book.
Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood -- A beautiful novel about girlhood friendship—a subject which fascinates me. My favorite of all of Atwood's novels.
The Furies by Janet Hobhouse -- Another book sadly out-of-print. I buy copies whenever I come across them. This was Hobhouse's final novel. She was dying of ovarian cancer as she was writing it at the horribly young age of 42. She knew she was ill, and somehow that knowledge gives the book a strange intensity, a momentum. It's a very autobiographical novel, gorgeously written. A powerful book about a matriarchy.
Patrimony by Philip Roth -- A sad, touching, funny, honest memoir about Roth's father. I teach this book as an example of how a memoir can be about one specific relationship, rather than a kitchen sink of life. I love Roth—all of Roth—but somehow this is the book of his that resonates with me most deeply.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Strange -- I'm not much of a film person. I love watching films, but they don't stay with me the way books do. Stranger still, because my husband is a screenwriter!
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I tend not to listen to music when I write, though I do go through periods of listening to The Goldberg Variations -- the recording by Glenn Gould. Music inspires me and puts me in the right mood, but to actually listen to it when I write -- I find it gets in the way. Driving, though, is a whole other matter. I love to crank it up when I'm in the car. R&B, classical, old scratchy recordings of just about anything.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
How about reading two memoirs by brothers, about the same family: Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life and his brother, Geoffrey Wolff's memoir, The Duke of Deception. Reading two different perspectives would be fascinating, I think.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give and receive poetry. I tend to read poetry the way I listen to music -- to get into the right head to write.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I need a lot of quiet, and very much the sense that I'm in a room of my own. And coffee. Good coffee is very important. I've begun, in the last several years, to write long hand, and then eventually transpose into my computer. I carry a notebook around with me. I have these special notebooks that they only sell in the bookstore of my husband's hometown. So whenever my in-laws come to visit, I beg them to bring me more notebooks!
What are you working on now?
A new novel. I can't talk about it, because it sort of jinxes it for me.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I sold my first novel while still in graduate school, so in that sense my career as a writer began without a whole lot of rejection. But aside from that, my writing life has been all about slow, steady progress. All I ask of myself is that I get better with each book. And I think I have. Hopefully I always will.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Well, I love Hannah Tinti's first collection of stories, Animal Crackers. She was my student years ago at NYU, and I think she's a talented and unusual writer.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Be true to yourself. Do the work that matters to you, and don't think for a single second about the marketplace and what publishers might or might not be looking for. I once had a student who studied the bestseller list and tried to write a bestseller. The work was awful. Once she turned to what truly mattered to her, she wrote a lovely first novel that was published and published well. Self-consciousness is the enemy of the writer.
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